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Wyoming History

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Japanese in Wyoming

Part three of four parts

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

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Canyon and cloudsAt section camps along the Union Pacific mainline in southwestern Wyoming, quarters for Japanese were also shown on turn-of-the-century railroad maps. The number of people living in these section camps varied between eight and fourteen people. By 1900, several section camps were primarily made up of Japanese workers. The majority of the section camps in Sweetwater County consisted of no less than 40 percent Japanese. By 1920, the number of Japanese nationals living in southwestern Wyoming began to decline, but the role they played in maintaining the railroad remained significant. Several Japanese worked their way up the ladder and became section foremen or obtained better jobs as suppliers to the various section camps.

George Nishi's oral interview provides an  insight into the  life of Japanese immigrants in Wyoming. George states:

My dad, he was a way back, what called wetback. He come from Mexico across Rio Grande. That why he never had papers. He told me, he says he can't even talk American so he have a heck of a time like buying eggs, milk. Then when you cross that river some never make it. . . . My dad was running a boarding house and I was born there see.

I was born in Oakley, Wyoming. That's below Diamondville, use to be a mining town. Yeah, 78 years ago. Me and my next brother, Harry, then Suzy, the Tani's wife, Tamayo. They was all born in Oakley. I am almost 80 years old. I don't know where my dad come from. I think come from Colorado first, then Rock Springs, then settled in Oakley, the moved to Kemmerer. Course my dad came to Oakley to mine one time. We two people from Kemmerer you know. City Corporation opened the mine, but they don't have enough money, you known, Oakley didn't. That's before 1930. Must be '26 or '27. So I come from Japan in 1930s. I was born here, but I went to school in Japan. I finished high school in Japan, see. Then I come here, see. Those early days Japanese figure they must have Japanese educations. So everybody send children to Japan. Like uncle or brother or they take care of them. Only finish so much education they come back to United States [Fu Kuoka Ken: Ken means Province or Prefecture].

I worked in the mines in 1932 in Blazon. Then lets see, I worked maybe 8 or 9 month. That's about all. but after that this guy used to cut my hair. You know in the mining camp they cut hair; took a bowl and tucked all that in. That saved money, you know. He used to cut my hair all the time and he got killed. After I quit the mines. Name was Okishima. Has got a grave up there. But grave is lost. Early days they make own grave. Japanese self go up on hill and get the tom, you know. Printed Japanese in grave, you know. The its all gone see. It still up there next to the mine, my brother, but its all covered up since the cemetery is all cleaned. . . . That's the only one I knew that was killed in the mine, Japanese.

[They made their own tombstone.] Like my brother, he died in California and a friend of mine was working. I mean my dad's brother's friend was working with me in Blazon, you know. Any they buried him here. He died in California. they made the tomb, it's still there. They do that. You see quite a few Japanese tombs made by their own people, you know, Japanese.

I'm Buddhist. So they give a Buddhist name and that's put on your tombstone. The your true name is on there, date died, and date born and your address in Japan.

Yoshiye Tonaka provides a woman's perspective. Yoshiye relates:

My dad first came at the age of around 13-14 - its in my autobiography so I won't go into that part. At the age of 37 he decides he wants to get married, so someone writes him that there is a pretty lady who wants to come to Wyoming because her brother lives in Sheridan. And the brother won't come back to Japan. This is what my mother says. Of course, my dad was a good looking man. So he goes back to Japan - it's an arranged marriage - 14 years difference. So he brings her to Kemmerer and then he says that he'll take her right to Sheridan. Well he never stopped to tell her that Kemmerer was here and Sheridan was up there. And he was working on the railroad then and so he'd have to come down to Kemmerer to visit my mother. It was 1919 when they were married. She was just going to stay here for a couple of years and then 1921 the first child was born, 1922 the 2nd, then 26, 28, and 30. So she never could go back. Then by that time she was too Americanized. My mother was a very beautiful lady. Someone described my dad when he went to Japan. Of course, he had a business suit on, he spoke English fluently, went to the first grade through the 6th grade. Wore a suit and a gold chain, this is what his friends say, gold pin, cigar in his mouth. He cut a nice figure. So it was an arranged marriage and my mother says she simply wanted to see her brother; she was going to stay here for a couple of years and then go back. Well, my dad after being here from age, sometimes he say 13, sometime 14 or 15. We don't know, but it was before he was 16 years old. What prompted him at the age of 37 go get married, I don't know other than his friends were all having families by then. So that's what he did, he went back and cut quite a figure.

[She cried when she got here.] O yes. She came to Kemmerer in 1919. Of course it wasn't too bad then, the buildings were up and everything but it was just a foreign land to her. She was from a fairly rich family because she know how to play the samisen and she read the classical book. My dad was orphaned at 13, that was it. The older brother was here and sent for him. They were going to make money and go back.

The period between 1900 and 1940 was marked by fluctuations in the number of Japanese living in the region. This was probably due to the harsh physical environment and to changes in the economic climate of the area. From all accounts, the Japanese of Sweetwater County fared better than the Chinese who preceded them. While racial prejudice was evident, it was of a more subtle variety than the Chinese experienced in earlier years. Yet despite a relatively stable racial environment, the number of Japanese in the area fell from the 436 in 1905 to 187 in 1940.

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If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dudley Gardner.

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